Precariat: new word for a new class?

1 02 2012


I want you to know I’m not an uncritical lover of new words. And it’s not solely because they’re new. I do discriminate, and among my favourites may be found new words for groups of people, whose very labelling tells us something about the world we live in.

One such newie is precariat, clearly a blend of “precarious” and the suffix “–at”, perhaps best characterised in the term the “proletariat”. The use of the definite article (“the”) is a dead giveaway too. I’m thinking of other coinages in this category, like the commentariat.  The category is typified by member nouns, using the suffix “-ian”: proletarian, Rotarian, authoritarian, establishmentarian, totalitarian, libertarian.

I found it in an advertisement for an upcoming lecture at The University of Sydney, where, no doubt, all will be explained.

See below:

The Precariat: A new dangerous underclass

9 February, 6.00pm
A generation of educated people now start their working life in debt,  but many are not offered any job security in the new flexible labour market, and drift towards casual and part-time work. Will they form a new under-class that threaten existing social structures?  Professor Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, has coined a new term for these people and others in social and economic insecurity—the precariat

Millions of people, including many in Australia, are entering a global precariat, part of a class structure shaped by globalisation. This lecture, drawing on a new book, poses five questions. What is the precariat? Why care? Why is it growing? Who is most likely to be in it? And where is it leading us?

The brief answer to the first question is that it consists of millions of people in social and economic insecurity, without occupational identities, drifting in and out of jobs, constantly worried about their incomes, housing and much else. It particularly affects youth, many realising that their certificates and degrees are little more than lottery tickets, leading many into status frustration.

Will the precariat’s growth lead towards an authoritarian politics of inferno, with neo-fascist overtones? Or will a progressive agenda emerge in the squares and cities of protest, responding to Enlightenment values and the aspirations of the educated younger generation being drawn into the precariat?

The lecture will examine the labour market dynamics underpinning the growth of the precariat and outline the new ‘politics of paradise’ taking shape outside the political mainstream.


13 01 2012

Interesting question, by David Rowe,  in today’s online The Punch: Is it unAustralian to barrack for the other team? It derives from the old chestnut – the Bradman question – that was designed for new immigrants way-back-when and much discussed in the media.

I quote: “ At issue was the necessary national cultural knowledge for an aspiring citizen contained in the test-prepping document Becoming an Australian Citizen.  Here the reader learnt that Australians like sport and are proud of their achievements in it (especially in cricket) and that `Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest cricket batsman of all time’.”

The Bradman question has gone by the wayside, but the “nation-sport nexus” continues. At the very minimum, governments seem to think that new immigrants need formally to be advised that Australians love their spectator sports. As if that itself were not daily, and everywhere, obvious. As if, too, it’s necessary for their adaptation and acculturation (if no longer “assimilation”).

My concern here, as ever, is the use in the title of the word “barracking” and a simple pondering thought about when the term might be deployed for whatever purpose in the circus of US  presidential pre-election fever.

From where we stand now, it seems rather inevitable.

What I’m reading now: 2 books about “things”

12 06 2010

I’ve never done this before: read 2 books that are connected thematically, but antithetical, and read them at the same time, trying to let each inform the other.

One is called The Language of Things (Penguin, 2009) by Deyan Sudjic.

The other is called The Comfort of Things (Polity Books,2008), by Daniel Miller.

Both are written in the context of current popular culture – contemporary mass consumerism, if you like. Language is intensely analytical; Comfort is intensely anthropological.

I plan to report back as I read further into each.

Binge Listening

24 05 2010

I just heard this new term:  binge listening

They’re now saying – forget about binge drinking; the latest medical warning being put out there concerns binge listening. In particular this warning is aimed at the clubbing demographic, but also anyone else who is exposed to long bouts of very loud sound/noise (from jack hammers to drums).  Early signs of hearing loss are being detected, not good news as apparently, once hearing is lost, it can’t be regained.

Binge is a great word and very flexible. It can be a countable noun (one binge, two binges), or can operate as a verb (to binge) or a gerund (binging). Dictionaries define it as a period or bout of certain activity., a short but intensive time span of dedicated or excessive indulgence (like eating, drinking, doing drugs, even shopping). It hails from an English dialect word that appeared in the mid-19th century, and that means, rather tellingly, “to soak”.

The creation of binge listening follows a common generative pattern in English. One word (eg binge) becomes widely used, and over time the –ing form of various verbs is added to it to form a compound. This is not unlike the various rages (eg road rage, hose range, hedge rage), in which case the rage is a kind of separate-word suffix, and all that changes is the word that precedes it, in this example, referring to the context in which the bout of anger exploded (on the road, in the garden, with the neighbour in regard to the view etc).

In the light of the old axiom about moderation, binging carries a negative connotation, and even sounds kind of self-indulgent and … dare I say it, kind of soaky.

Semantic Minefields

21 05 2010

This is the title given to Clark Hoyt’s op-ed column in the May 16, 2010 N Y Times Week in Review section (p.10) (see ) and I can do no better. He makes two points, both of them timely and important.

First, he explores the fracas surrounding the names or words chosen to refer to events, wherein dissension or controversy resides. He begins thus:

If the Obama administration takes out a radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen, would it be a “targeted killing” or an “assassination?” Was the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina a “natural” disaster” or a “man-made” one? Should new construction authorized by Israel in East Jerusalem be called Jewish “housing” or “settlements”?

They certainly have their work cut out for them, they who choose the words to represent events in the media. And arguably, as information dissemination increases its clout through constantly updated electronic media, such representations increasingly heighten their stake in the public perception war.

For instance, I’ve long  decried the term suicide bomber – whether in news items about Israel, Iraq,  Bali, or anywhere else. Yes, such individuals are prepared to die for their beliefs, and that’s suicide. But their death is not the primary goal; it’s an unfortunate (for them) side-consequence of their major objective, which is killing others. Better known as “homicide”. Calling them “suicide bombers”, then, is almost euphemistic, as it disguises the slaughter of others under the veneer of self-chosen suicide.

The second point in Clark Hoyt’s op-ed is how, over time, and through massive media exposure, single words or terms tend to accrue particular clusters of meanings. It’s a version of “mud sticks”. The name “Katrina” now cues much more than the hurricane; depending on context, it may include the failed levees, the neglect and the scandals about the rescue efforts, the tragedy in racial and social terms.  Think of what “Tampa” has come to connote in Australia.

This process is not unlike metonymy which is where a name or a word for one object or concept is used to stand for something else to which it is related, often something larger of which it is a part. In this way, “throne” can cue royalty, one’s “pocket” can cue economic status, “drink” can refer to any kind of alcohol. It’s a similar process when the “White House” or “Washington” is intended and taken to mean the current US administration; or “Number 10”, the British equivalent. In Australia, “The Lodge”  has lost some of this connectiveness, largely I suspect because of the aversion of some PMs to living in Canberra.

The Crooner

13 05 2010

I know a man on the wrong side (as they say) of his sixties. He has many charming qualities, one being the fact that he’s something of a crooner. It takes little to set him off – from the turn of the shower taps to a soft romantic smile from his wife.

Crooning as a form of communication is of linguistic interest to me, perhaps because it’s as alien and un-me as life-on-Mars. This is advantageous, enabling me to approach it anthropologically.  As such, a ready platter of questions materialize –  like, what is the pattern of this behavior: when, where, how and under what circumstances does it occur? What social purpose does it fulfill? What conditions need to be in place for it to function successfully?

One day I asked this fellow about his crooning and discovered what in fact was self-evident. The fact that the lyrics he always turns to are those he associates with his teenage and young-adult years. Much the way others of us turn to Leonard Cohen or Rod Stewart or Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens or James Taylor (or insert your own preferences, here).  So, in the case of our crooner, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Cole Porter and a bevy of popular stage musicals feature prominently.

And as anyone will know who has a passing familiarity with the music of the fifties, sixties and seventies, these decades in part distinguish themselves from each other by the orientation of their lyrics. Can anyone ever imagine the wide-eyed, naïve, romantic lyrics of Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera being sung post-9/11?  Or in the  hardened 80s/90s, or in the socially conscious 60s/70s?

Two things emerge from my initial inquiry. One is that popular culture lyrics say something about the socio-cultural context that spawns them. Second, the music  one associates with one’s own reaching of adulthood, infused as it is with the context of its times, has the strongest tug on one’s nostalgia strings. This accounts for why our crooner is locked onto his decade.

Quite scarily, research reported in a current issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (mentioned in the online ScienceDaily), links teenagers who prefer popular songs containing degrading sexual references with a high incidence of early sexual activity.

This is congruent with something else the crooner told me. That the popular lyrics of his times provided the informal means by which he as a young man (and supposedly, his generation) learned how to treat the opposite sex. When extrapolated to the present, that’s a pretty scary thought.

3 New Words in one day

29 04 2010

29 April 2010

Today I caught 3 new words. I say “caught” in the spirit of a butterfly net. And I say “new” because they’re new to me. They may have been around for a while, but I’ve only just noticed them.

1.  locadile – this is a log that looks like a crocodile  (or a croc that looks like a log) . Heard it on The Sunrise program on Channel 7 this morning. Speaker was up in a helicopter looking down on some extraordinarily beautiful wild natural landscape  (Northern Territory, I’d guess). Clearly, this is a blended compound made up of bits of other words: log/crocodile.

Now, she may have said logadile, not locadile: I stand ready to be corrected.  Google yields 2,120 hits for locadile, mostly in contexts to do with faux-croc handbags. Logodile yielded 11,700 hits, but most seem related to computer software for coffee roasting machines. Go figure.

2. layathon – this is another compound, made up of the word lay (in the sexual sense) and the suffix -athon, which is a very portable bit of the language, that started out in the Greek Marathon,  developed the meaning of a long haul, and has spawned any number of offspring: walkathon, swimathon, telathon, even boreathon, for an interminable occasion. I heard layathon in  one of those little snippets of Entertainment News, which ought more aptly be called” Hollywood Gossip”. The latest layathon – now meaning a marathon of sexual indiscretions – was applied to revelations about Sandra Bullock’s ex, just as it had been applied to Tiger Woods, not so long ago. In the light of our culture of  obsessive celebrity hype, I suspect layathon will come in useful. The word, I mean.

3.  gyno-devilry – I read this in an article by that incisively witty social critic, Elizabeth Farrelly in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (p.15), under the headline: Wicked Women Make the Earth Move. Gyno-devilry refers to the belief that women can make bad things happen. A recent allegation of such came from a senior Iranian cleric, according to whom  females who dress provocatively cause earthquakes. I’m reminded of those wicked witches of Salem, of  Joan of Arc, and of course, going back to the original archetype of female destructiveness, that  vexatious Eve, all of whom found a way of irritating the patriarchs of their day’s status quo.  They should have just stayed in the kitchen, out of the way.


28 04 2010

Sometimes I wonder where I have been all my life, or at least the last decade. Last night,  I encountered for the first time the word dogging. It came up in a police/law show on the channel 13th Street, called Close to Home, which I like because it always offers a tight little narrative, the good guys always win, and you can turn the TV off feeling satisfied that all’s good with the world for another night. Entirely facile and illusory, but there you have it. Anyway, in this episode, the activity of dogging came up. I quickly gathered what it meant – having sex with anonymous strangers in public places while untold numbers of other strangers watch voyeuristically online. That’s what I gleaned from the storyline. But I went to Google to check. Maybe I got it wrong. No,  I didn’t. Google spat out 1,300,000 hits. Hence my question to myself: where have I been?   Now I have other questions. This dogging is a highly internet-mediated activity: the way the couple comes together in the first place; the fact that thousands can watch in private. So, did the internet create it? Or did it simply channel an existing predilection in a new direction?  What, in other words, were these people doing – the ones who now engage in dogging, and the ones watching – before the internet gave them this great new opportunity?

range anxiety

15 04 2010

This is the worry that the electric car you are driving is running out of battery charge. I myself don’t drive an electric car, as yet, but I can understand the anxiety, because I experience it in regard to my laptop when I’m not electrically connected. Even though there’s a little icon I can click on to tell me the current status of the battery charge, I’m not able to relax. I know that as soon as I turn my back as it were, the remaining charge will shoot down to zero and I’ll be left low-and-dry. I learned about range anxiety from an article called “Language for a New World, by Richard Chang, writing for The New York Times (14/4/10). Chang says that with the drive to alternative energy sources, new language is creeping in. Like range anxiety; and the diva, the name given to the battery at one stage of development  “because of the way it has to be treated”; the drag count , a calculation that, for instance, can mean that streamlining the side mirrors will save on drag and thereby slightly increase the battery’s range (every bit counts); the “limp home” feature, a small reserve in the battery in case of emergency.  In regard to the umbrella term range anxiety, Chang quips that it’s all about who’s in charge – you or your battery.